Film Review: “A Good Person” — Grappling with Trauma
By Tim Jackson
Florence Pugh tends to be cast as beautiful and indomitable characters faced with the very real possibility of madness or defeat.
A Good Person, directed by Zach Braff. Screening AMC Assembly Row, AMC Boston Common, Kendall Square and Somerville Theaters.
I first saw Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, the 2016 film based on a 19th-century Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov. The story is set in 1865 and she plays a kept wife who, during her despicable husband’s long absence, succumbs to an affair with a stableman. She eventually becomes manipulative and murderous. In 2019, Pugh starred in MidSommer, where, as the victim of a pagan cult, she moved more slowly down the road to madness, her transformation ending on a closing shot that was identical to that of the earlier film: the camera slowly moves in on her unhinged and immobile face. The actress’s rise after these films was swift, including a turn as the headstrong Amy March in Little Women, a confident superhero in Black Widow, and a housewife trapped in a twisted and cult-ridden suburban community in Don’t Worry Darling. She tends to be cast as beautiful and indomitable characters faced with the very real possibility of madness or defeat.
She is situated in the same territory in A Good Person, written and directed by her former boyfriend, Zach Braff, and it is the chameleon actress’s best performance yet. She is asked to deliver raw emotion as Allison, the blandly titled “good person.” Allison is a woman bedeviled by her addiction to OxyContin, which had been prescribed following a car accident in which several passengers were killed. A year later, still denying that she was glancing at her cell phone at the time of the incident, she uses opioids to numb her physical pain and her crippling guilt. This is a woman who is at war with herself, trying to move beyond crippling self-blame. Throughout, Allison elicits our sympathy but never our pity. Pugh is naturally tough and sexy, so we root for her as a flawed character who fiercely advocates for herself in a very imperfect world.
That imperfect world is an ordinary suburb where, as a result of her tragic misstep, problems begin to mount. Chinaza Uche, a charismatic but relatively unknown American actor of Scottish and Nigerian descent, plays her fiancé, Nathan. She walked away from the engagement, emotionally paralyzed after the horrific accident. Morgan Freeman, eschewing his usual Godlike demeanor, is Nathan’s alcoholic father Daniel, an ex-cop. Daniel’s past as an abusive parent has estranged him from his son. Now in recovery, he has become responsible for raising his granddaughter, Ryan, whose mother (Nathan’s sister) has recently passed away. That multigenerational conflict, plus the child’s trauma, creates a very volatile situation. Daniel, now retired, finds solace in his elaborate model train set, a perfectly constructed little world that offers a clear and blatant contrast to the world of pain in which these characters exist.
All these elements collide when Allison convinces herself to enroll in a rehab program at a local church. There she runs into Daniel and, with his encouragement, begins to confront not only her own demons but those of her fiancé’s family, which had been upended by the accident.
Recovery for Allison is slow and fitful. During a low point she is confronted by two former high school classmates at a bar where she hopes to score dope. Exploiting the sorry condition that brought her to the watering hole, they shower her with insults, like bad boys who can finally get one up on the prettiest girl in their class. Learning that she is also the one who was in “that fatal accident” and is now in need of some “Oxy” gives them an opportunity to pile on some final humiliation. Getting her drugs will not be a problem, but it comes with one demand. “Just say ‘I’m an addict.’ Just say it,” they insist. It is the kind of squirmy, sadistic scene that Pugh plays well. Under pressure Allison tries to maintain her pride, but in her eyes we can see she is defeated.
Allison’s fatuous mother Diane is no help. Molly Shannon is well suited to play this clueless chatterbox. Without a husband as an anchor, Diane thrashes around haplessly, trying to figure out what to do with her once promising daughter. She flushes her daughter’s medication down the toilet, then, concerned that she’ll lose her daughter’s affections, scores more pills just as Allison is in recovery. Like Diane, The Good Person sometimes flounders under the weight of its good intentions. Too many dysfunctions and too little time to explore them. What’s more, the movie wraps up most of its traumatic conflicts via a number of eye-rolling coincidences, perhaps because the filmmakers feel that viewers will feel cheated if they haven’t been supplied with ample reassurance.
Nevertheless, despite some questionable twists of the plot, the committed performances of the cast keep the story from descending too far into melodrama or feel-good cliché. The serviceable supporting cast includes Zoe Lister-Jones (Life in Pieces, Band Aid) as the recovery group moderator and Alex Wolff (Old, Pig) as the boy who is continually caught trying to bed the 16-year-old Ryan. Comedienne Jackie Hoffman provides a memorable cameo: supplying one of the film’s lighter moments, he screams at Wolff’s character, “Get out of our neighborhood, fuck boy.”
Sustaining interest throughout is Pugh, who seems comfortable tackling characters, like Allison, who are beset by severe psychological conflicts but maintain their dignity as they grapple with their inner agonies.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog